seeing, observing, connecting

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her trip to Royal Grammar School in Newcastle.

During my visit to Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, Christine Egan-Fowler (one of the art teachers) invited me to participate in a life drawing class. This is a class she puts on for any interested student, whether or not they are studying art. The class runs once a week, after school, between 4.15pm and 6pm. As Pat Thomson has written, those of us who do ethnography love to participate, as it can often generate new forms of understanding. But when you only have a few days in a school, opportunities to do so are rare. So, despite my nervousness and rusty drawing skills, I jumped at this chance.

Once school was finished, Christine arranged the tables in her class into a square, with space in the centre for the model to pose. The model sat on a table on some material and different fabrics, with her one hand placed in a tank of water by her side. Students moved around the room at first, looking at the pose from different angles and analyzing the changing light. Once everyone was settled, we performed a focusing exercise, dividing the body up by moving our pencil into different positions – horizontal, vertical, up, down. Christine advised that we might only want to do part of the post, and she warned us that with the changing westerly light in the room, there were “highlights being chased across the body”. She also told us to “look for the shadowy areas. There is quite complicated light from above, all the way around, reflected light on the water”. We began to draw (or paint, for those using oils). Music played quietly in the background, and there was the sound of pencils being sketched, and paint being swooshed and swished.

During the drawing process I started to think about how we learn to observe, learn to see things in particular ways. This might seem obvious, in a life drawing class, but it is less obvious when you think about it as a research skill. I spend a lot of my time observing in schools, often in classrooms but also in dining halls and outside. Learning to look is a skill that has to be honed and developed. It is guided by research questions and ideas as they develop, but it also relies on conversations, where you can talk about your ideas. These ideas then shape how and where you look, when you return to observe.

While I was drawing, and shading with graphite, I began to wonder about the transferable skills from life-drawing to researching. I was incredibly focused during the class, concentrating, looking and re-looking, tentatively shaping a shoulder, then looking again. Once I had the outline I started to look again, at the light, at the shadows. Research observation is similar. You look, you look again, you take notes. Then you look again.

The following day I spoke to Christine. We talked about her experiences at the Tate Summer School in 2016, and how this had shaped how she approached her teaching. During our conversation, she explained:

“No longer am I a teacher who goes into the classroom and expects everybody to be able to come out knowing a skill but I am giving them an experience and I want to see the students connecting that experience to something else. It is the connecting that is more important than the skill. In that way the students start asking the right questions and treating you in the right way: they treat people as means to bounce ideas off of and not as getting every skill they can. I think that is really good for them because they discover things for themselves and then they can teach other people. Quite often in school now I will say ‘I don’t know but I do know that so and so did that last week’. So we’ve got this kind of interchange going on”.

To a certain extent, I had done exactly this during the life-drawing class. I certainly did not suddenly become a maestro with the pencil. But I was able to take the experience and connect it to other experiences and ideas I had – does spending time in a life-drawing class make me a better researcher? Does it develop my observational skills?

There is a lot of debate at the moment, both in our society and in our schools, about the value, place and purpose of art. I wonder if more people had the same experience life-drawing as I did, using it as a stimulus for thinking about how I do my own work, whether we might not think differently about the purpose and place of art?


seeing and assembling

During my second research visit to Thomas Tallis school I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to observe an artist, Dafna Talmor working with year eleven and thirteen photography students. Dafna’s recent work entitled, Constructed Landscapes is described as consisting of:

staged landscapes made of collaged and montaged colour negatives shot across different locations that include Israel, Venezuela, the UK and USA. Initially taken as mere keepsakes, landscapes are merged and transformed through the act of slicing and splicing.  The resulting photographs are a conflation, ‘real’ yet virtual and imaginary. 


 Dafna Talmor: Constructed Landscapes

Dafna explained her current practice to both groups, adapting what she foregrounded skilfully. Big questions arose about the value of the art and whether it was original or authentic. Challenging the students to question what is meant by these terms, Dafna suggested that in her work she explores the idea that ‘a photograph is supposed to represent something truthful.’

I observed Jon and Dafna working together to move the year eleven students quickly into trying out the splicing and slicing techniques. Armed with scalpels, found slides of holidaymakers and landscapes and light boxes the students embarked on a process of assembling which was clearly captivating. Resources such as pens, paint, nail-varnish remover, tape and typex were also used to make marks and add colour and texture. What I found especially fascinating was the way in which the affordances of the process pushed the students to continue to think about these questions, by challenging their creative routines. The use of found images in slide form shaped what they were able to do in very productive ways.

I watched as one student spent the entire three-hour session, creating her composite slides without ever seeing what they looked like in the slide projector.

I watched other students make tiny adaptations and then view their images before developing and refining them further. The projectors became a site of dialogue where teacher, researcher, artist and student shared responses to each image, images that could only be seen once projected on the back wall of the classroom. It was impossible not to get drawn in to responding to the students’ work as it surprised both them and us. They grew bolder in their choices and took more risks creating images that were dark, surreal, eerie and irreverent.


One student, who was previously preoccupied with the monetary value of Dafna’s work, became adept at meshing bold colours in geometric designs with the ghostly figures of holiday makers hovering in the background.

Jon reflects on Dafna’s visit as part of a thought-provoking wider programme, including his response to the Tate summer school here.

My field notes were fast and furiously written as I observed this rich, dynamic process. As Pat has reflected in a previous post, I wanted to get ethnographic and join in more! Yet, watching the students looking, seeing and assembling in an intuitive way, creating images over which they had to relinquish some element of control, was compelling. The work was underpinned by the Threshold Concepts Jon and a colleague have developed for Photopedagogy which emphasise ideas in photography such as chance, context, abstraction, technology and time.

Interestingly, although the students had experimented in their assembling they ‘just knew’ when they had an image they liked. This led to powerful discussions – ‘Why? ‘What worked?’ ‘What didn’t?’ Jon had to push the students hard to move beyond ‘it just does’ and in doing so we could see tangible developments in their ability to make critical observations of the form and content of their own work.